Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Kids Like to Read

I arrived rather late to an Internet discussion about children’s books and what attracts children to a certain type of story. There was a general agreement that the younger ones were attracted as much by the colorful pictures as they were by the story. It is my personal feeling that a book won’t hold the attention of the younger ones unless it involves both.

I am one of those adults who is blessed (or cursed) with a memory that goes back into early childhood. I can still remember the spine-tingling anticipation of settling back and reading a story for the first (second, fifth, or the hundredth) time. It becomes even more interesting when I analyze my feeling and try to discover what it was that pulled me into that particular story. I think the real key to writing a good story is giving the child a sense of involvement. I have a vivid memory of reading Peter Rabbit for the first time and discovering that animals were ‘people’ in the world of literature. Our garden was only a short distance behind our house and the fence looked a great deal like the one in the story book. I also remember carrying my copy of Sammy Jay to the edge of the woods and looking up into the limbs, hoping that in some magical way I would be able to engage one of my feathered friends in conversation. There were slowly moving streams, wooded hilltops, and fields in my world, and I hoped to encounter the same kind of adventures that engaged Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the rest of their friends. Books were a magical portal I could step through and find adventuresome things among the commonplace.

Writers of children’s fiction are somewhat envious of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but many of them are looking in the wrong place for the secret of her success. I did not understand it until I saw Rowling on television signing copies of her book. The children were lined up, each of them hugging a copy of Harry Potter as they slowly inched along. The camera focused on one little girl. When it came her turn, she slid the book across to Rowling who focused her full attention on what the little girl was saying. While the camera captured the incident in a very poigent fashion, I could not hear the earnest conversation. I have no doubt that Rowling was intently interested in what the little girl was saying. Unless we are still attuned to the child inside of us, what we write is likely to fall flat on the written page.

So what do children lack in their world that we can give to them in our stories? Adventure comes high on the list, and the second is respect. Did you notice how many people addressed Harry Potter as Sir? In today’s world, children are coddled and praised, but seldom respected. There is a subtle difference and good children’s literature must contain some of the latter if it is to be attuned to the proper wavelength. Children want a spell they can cast, a secret formula, a decoded map, a weapon—or any other kind of power that makes them feel special. They want to be recognized by adults for their achievements. They want to know that their effort made a difference.


Loretta said...

Joe, all of this is so true,recapturing the child inside us and turning it loose to play and believe again is the most necessary component. And of course, the respect you spoke of also:)
Books helped me to believe and see the wonder in so many things when I was little too:) And I think my affinity with animals was enhanced by the stories I read from a very young age up until I was a teen. I adored the books by Walter Farley...The Black, Son of the Black...and then of course, works like The Call of the Wild.
This was an excellent post,and spoke of all things true when writing for children.

The Belle in Blue said...

You are so right about the respect issue, Joe. My kids have always been highly offended when their teachers refused to listen to their opinions the way their father and I try to do. They also hate stereotypical television shows and movies that make kids look like morons.

The teenaged characters in my novel TRUE BLUE FOREVER aren't perfect and make mistakes, but I tried to show them as intelligent people who didn't take their actions lightly. I think my teenaged readers appreciate that.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Good points, all, Joe. Often I think that adults forget that children are developing human beings, with the emphasis on human beings and deserve acknowledgment and respect.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

An excellent analysis. As a school librarian for many years, I agree that children want respect, want their communication to matter and look for books that offer it. I have written for both children and adults and don't find their needs all that dissimilar. However, as you point out illustration is very important in children's books.

Jacqueline Seewald
A DEVIL IN THE PINES, Afton Publishing
WHERE IS ROBERT? Royal Fireworks Press